There are few more enduring and pointless tragedies than the civil war that has raged across the island nation of Sri Lanka. That island paradise has suffered through nearly two decades of terrorism while the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam fought for their independence. Yet even as the death toll continues to climb, recent developments hold out hope for peace. With effort on the part of the government in Colombo and like-minded politicians in the opposition, and help from other nations, the people of Sri Lanka may yet find some respite from their bloody, senseless war.
The fighting began in 1993, when the Tamil Tigers launched their war to create an independent nation for the minority Tamil people in areas of northern and eastern Sri Lanka. The Tamil people, mostly Hindus, originally came to the country as migrant workers from southern India and had long complained of discriminatory treatment by the Buddhist Sinhalese, who make up 75 percent of the population. Military engagements and savage random acts of terror have killed 60,000 people and driven thousands of Tamil refugees into cities such as Colombo, where they work in menial jobs. While the front lines have shifted, the two sides have battled to a stalemate. People continue to die, but no progress is made.
Five years ago, President Chandrika Kumaratunga drew up a peace plan that offered some autonomy to the Tamils, but it languished as a result of opposition in Parliament. After winning a second term as president last December, Mr. Kumaratunga dusted off the plan. This time, the opposition, chastened by its electoral defeat, agreed to support the bill, if it offered real power to the Tamils.
The opposition’s change of heart was prompted by news that the president had called upon Norway to help broker talks with the rebels. That move was taken as a signal of the government’s seriousness in wanting to achieve a genuine peace. A Norwegian government delegation was in Colombo last week making initial contacts with both parties to the negotiations. The peace process is expected to gain more momentum when Norwegian Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek makes a visit to the country.
The peace plan calls for constitutional amendments that would give greater autonomy to all provinces, including those in which the Tamils are concentrated. This would create a de facto Sri Lankan federation. The government said the plan could be finalized in two months.
The government also insisted that the LTTE enter the peace process. That is only common sense: No peace is possible without active LTTE participation. Unfortunately, the LTTE and its leader Mr. Velupillai Prabhakaran have rejected the plan, clinging instead to their demand for complete independence.
The opposition’s new stance marks a dramatic shift in Colombo’s politics. The emergence of bipartisan support for peace opens the door to foreign participants — to mediate, of course — and puts pressure on the Tamil Tigers to enter into negotiations.
That requires Mr. Prabhakaran to be willing to compromise, and, sadly, there is little sign of his inclination to do so. The LTTE has conducted a savage campaign of terror that has shown no respect for human life. Its favorite weapon is the human booby trap — garlanded youths willing to kill themselves and anyone in the immediate proximity as they try to murder their political enemies.
That is one of the real tragedies of the LTTE insurgency. The Tigers target not only the government, but moderate Tamil politicians who have also expressed support for compromise. The country is being deprived of its voices of moderation.
Last week, a bomb went off in a post office, killing 11 people and wounding 73 others. During the election campaign, 26 people were killed and 110 wounded, including Ms. Kumaratunga, in a bombing. Only minutes before that assassination attempt, a suicide bomber attacked an opposition party rally, killing another 12 people and wounding 40. A few days later, another suicide bomber killed herself and 14 others outside the prime minister’s office.
The madness must stop. The peace plan is a first step, the inclusion of the Norwegians a second. But the negotiations threaten to be long and difficult. Japan, Sri Lanka’s single largest aid donor, cannot do much, but it can promise continued assistance in support of peace and reconstruction. The Tigers must be given every reason to come to the table. The long-suffering Sri Lanka people deserve an end to the killing.
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